Empire!

I knew it! I knew forgot a movie. The Empire Strikes Back.

It even takes place at a frigging school!

professorerudite:

dunesen:

Why didn’t Harry Potter ever study magic? It would have been a big help in fighting Voldemort, I’m sure.

(Please don’t point out others have raised this objection before. I’m sure somebody, somewhere has, but it’s been bothering me for so long I just need to get my thoughts out for my own sake.)

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This is such an accurate analysis of the Harry Potter series. Thank you for writing it.

Someone read it! Wow!

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

I can’t decide if it’s a significant negative that Dawn manages to go through the first two acts without a clear antagonist, spending time establishing the human and ape characters and giving every one a strong, personal motivation that prevents any from being categorized as ‘the bad guy,’ but then making one downright evil in act three for the sake of a somewhat resolvable obstacle.

Was it necessary to prop up a bad guy who exists just to be defeated? Couldn’t the story be concluded the same way it was without one character moving beyond their understandable and admittedly sympathetic position into ‘I’ll behave like the bad guy because the plot requires it’ territory? I suppose I could have understood their decision to be proactive and hasten the expected clash between humans and apes, but then they go beyond what is necessary, what is defensible, and their initial stance of wanting to protect their group goes out the window as instead they become a tired ‘I want to seize power’ upstart.

Because those first two acts really are nigh-perfect at eschewing the vilification of one side or the other, or of individual characters. Gary Oldman and Caesar’s right-hand ape Koba are opposite sides of the ‘We can’t trust them, we need to strike first’ coin, but neither is just hateful or prone to violence. They’re both thinking of the bigger picture, albeit clouded by their biases and painful memories of the past.

It’s a welcome change to have something like that, a story that can spread its sympathies amongst all the players. But then it has to sacrifice it towards the end to have a more generic climax than what it had been leading up to.

***

Speaking of the humans versus apes battle, it was wonderfully staged. It only lasts a few minutes but the sequence manages to relate a story in the battle, a back-and-forth where each side builds up momentum before the other pushes back and starts to come out on top. There’s no problem keeping track of what is happening or who is currently winning. Great direction in that scene.

Deciding on my favorite movies should not be difficult

One of the things about Tumblr that has jumped out at me is the habit of some people to fill their ‘About Me’ section with a list of franchises they love, as if the fandoms they belong to are their most distinguishing characteristics. Do they really want to identify themselves by their preferences as consumers, I wonder.

This is only tangentially related to my current (second) attempt to come up with a list of my favorite movies. This is supposed to be subjective through and through, nothing but the movies I enjoy watching the most or which affect me emotionally, but for whatever reason the idea of locking in (even without numeric rankings) a specific collection of titles concerns me. Not just because I’m afraid I’m forgetting a title (I’m sure I am), but because stating ‘These are the things I love the most’ makes me feel as if I’m trying to proclaim definitively a certain aspect about myself. That I’m constructing an image of myself in my own head and trying to force it on the rest of the world.

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It even takes place at a frigging school!

Why didn’t Harry Potter ever study magic? It would have been a big help in fighting Voldemort, I’m sure.

(Please don’t point out others have raised this objection before. I’m sure somebody, somewhere has, but it’s been bothering me for so long I just need to get my thoughts out for my own sake.)

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About romance in fiction

Slacktivist posted something yesterday that got under my skin:

“The essence of a romantic comedy is pretty simple: Introduce two characters who belong together, then contrive to keep them apart for about 90 minutes.”

Whoa, whoa, whoa. What is this ‘belong together’ crap? How do you determine they belong together? Because they’re of comparable age and maybe share an interest or two? Or is it just because they’re the leads in the story? ‘Hey, I find these two characters likable. Clearly they should devote their lives to one another because of what I, the third party, think.’

This is what bothers me about romance in fiction: so much of it is driven by tropes that don’t work in real life. Two characters are separated because of class or intra-family strife or whatever? Well then they must belong together! Two characters meet in a charmingly awkward manner? Well then they must belong together! Are they both young and photogenic? They belong together! Are all their friends and coworkers conventiently already in relationships or romantically undesirable in some obvious, probably contrived way? Then these two characters must go together because there can’t possibly be anyone else in their world they can have a lasting relationship with!

And real life doesn’t work that way. Real life is the exact opposite. Whereas movies and books begin with the conclusion already determined (these two belong together), real life doesn’t. Real life sees people get together and, if they are able to stay together despite a number of potential obstacles and pitfalls, build something that becomes a defining part of their lives, both shared and individually. From nothing came something.

There’s no such thing as destiny, there’s no such thing as fate, and we are not characters in a story following a list of plotpoints as we hurtle along to a story-resolving climax after which all out problems and issues are gone. It doesn’t bother me when a story ends without any ‘happily ever after’ vibe, when it acknowledges that this is just a new situation for the characters and will come with its own problems and responsibilities, but that’s pretty rare.

I don’t feel anything when a movie/book/whatever just puts two characters together. I feel something when they come together and make something. Show, don’t tell, especially with something as complex and fragile as burgeoning romance.

(Just to throw this out there: last year we saw Frozen, Her and Blue is the Warmest Color all demonstrate a realistic understanding of what romance is and what it takes for a relationship to work, though only the Disney movie ended with a relationship still in tact. Not sure if that says anything about the difficulty of presenting romance realistically or not.)

The Purge: Anarchy

The trailer for the first Purge movie made it look like a typical home invasion story with an overly elaborate premise, a view supported by the middling reviews. So I didn’t see it.

But the trailer for the sequel got my attention, because instead of people barricaded in a house we have people out in the city where the action is taking place. Like (I imagine) its predecessor Anarchy doesn’t live up to the full potential of its ‘For 12 hours all crime is legal’ premise, but it tries so much harder to examine all the different ways it could play out even while sticking to the idea that murder is the only crime people would want to commit when given the chance.

That is all we see in this movie, poor people running around killing one another and rich people using their money to purge in their own way, safe and secure from the masses. (There is one reference to rape, yes.) I think this limitation could be justified with a little dialogue, explaining how the purge has always been intended to be an invitation to slaughter and how the culture of this world and the mentalities of everyone, purging or not, reinforces this. Nobody is going to go looting a Best Buy when everyone else has stocked up on automatic rifles and magazine upon magazine of ammunition. To purge is to commit murder, nothing else.

And such a dialogue would not be out of place here, because this movie is all about using social commentary as the mortar between the bricks of the action scenes. Income inequality, the fetishization/sanctification of the Second Amendment and the fact that the rich manipulate the poor into fighting amongst themselves are all highlighted, inbetween scenes involving cars stalling at the worst time, masked gangs, one man’s hunt for revenge, a military-grade death squad, random snipers, a lethal moment of passion, an organized attempt to use the purge as a way to fight back against the One Percent and a gathering of rich people to bid on the chance to re-enact The Most Dangerous Game.

It sounds frantic and struggling to focus on any one idea, but that’s to the movie’s strength. There are a billion stories to be told with this premise, and the story the movie chooses to tell it tells well, ushering the characters from one location to another, giving them a momentary sense of security or the possibility they’re about to get to safety, and then pulling it away and forcing them to move on again. The ‘journey as plot’ allows for a series of scenes and a couple ongoing threads that introduce several unique ideas that demonstrate there is more to the purge and its repercussions than “People try to stay safe indoors all night.”

Yes, the ‘murder is the only crime’ idea is limiting. I keep wondering why arsonists aren’t setting fire to buildings (or, given the implication that the government is organizing systematic attacks on poor neighborhoods, why isn’t anyone burning the projects en masse?), but the murder-only plot allows for enough changes in location and action to never lose its freshness.

But there is the overall problem of too many ideas not being fully developed. Not everything introduced deserves an entire movie unto itself (though by changing up the genre some of them could be something radically different and possibly great in their own right), but several scenes deserved more attention, more time to play out.

Case in point: an elderly man with only months to live sells himself to a wealthy family for a six-figure payoff to his daughter and granddaughter. That idea itself is intriguing, and the scene where we see this play out starts to live up to the promise of it in what little time it has, as the old man sits quietly while a family of WASPs recites what could be a religious prayer before picking up machetes and killing him.

The sequence is only a minute long, but another two or three could have made that, in its own microcosm, a brilliant and memorable scene to rival anything else in movies this year. I want to see these people (or their servants) lovingly laying out and setting up all the plastic sheets in the room, being so careful not to disturb anything and making sure everything is just right. And then when the man arrives they greet him, perhaps offer him a drink, then show him to the room and his chair. Then they gather around, recite their incantation, and commence killing him. The build-up of the ceremony and the swift, brutal savagery of the murder contrasted together, and perhaps combined with conversations between the family members, expressing their own mentality as they dress in their Sunday finest and get ready to kill someone in a ritual act that is now, for them, a yearly tradition. THAT would be a memorable scene.

Or… the first 10-15 minutes of the movie is the countdown to the start of the purge and introduction of the characters. Two of them are a married couple traveling to visit his sister (though honestly, why did they pick *now* to make this trip?) when their car breaks down and they’re singled out by a gang of masked bikers. Because the purge hasn’t started yet the gang does nothing, keeping its distance and allowing the couple to work themselves up. The couple tries to run and hide… and then the movie cuts to other characters. When we return to the couple they’ve somehow lost their tail.

There is a masterful suspense sequence hiding in that missing scene, the tension rising as the clock ticks down, the couple trying in vain to find shelter or to lose the gang, knowing that in 30 minutes, 20 minutes, 10 minutes it will be too late.

The Purge: Anarchy only aspires to be a B-movie with a message (or two, or three), and while it’s not a good thing when a movie sets its ambitions low, it can be forgiven in a case where the movie knows its limitations and knows what is expected of it. The fact that this came out a year after the first one makes me wonder if this is going to be the new Saw or Paranormal Activity: a franchise churning out new installments on the cheap every year. Given the range of possibilities for this series I would certainly like to see another one made, though what I really want to see is a diverse group of directors with different styles and ideas use the basic hook (all crime is legal for 12 hours) to do their own thing. Other than branding there’s no reason to limit this potential series to action or horror movies.

Book 40: Last Order omnibus 2

Battle Angel Alita: Last Order omnibus vol. 2 by Yukito Kishiro (B)

When I read the first omnibus for this continuation of the series I commented on how the story expanded its scope dramatically when Alita got to outer space, looking at the various offshoots of humanity more than Alita herself. Omnibus two brings the spotlight back to Alita, which is a plus, and the fact that she’s one insignificant figure in a much larger universe (something Kishiro doesn’t let us forget) doesn’t hinder the series as we now have the first stirrings of Alita recovering her past memories and coming to understand how she came to the wasteland.

But Kishiro is going to take the long route to that end. Bringing focus to the story, he’s pushed Alita into a grand fighting tournament that is supposed to be cover for Alita’s ally to find her friend’s brain (her personal goal at the start of all this). And that’s what most of this volume is taken up with: distracted from her brain-hunt temporarily, while trying (ultimately futilely, she knows) to protect children being used in live-fire training exercises Alita learns of the tournament and decides to enter.

And most of the volume is then dedicated to Alita qualifying and making it through round one, with time to establish her first round opponents as humanitarians trying to find sanctuary for a number of orphans. Also vampires exist.

The fights themselves are a mix of anime-style, over-the-top martial arts (justifiable here, as fighters are enhanced by the incorporation of cybernetics) and quasi-Eastern spiritualism where the real battle is less about physical strength and talent and more about inner spiritual growth (for Alita, at least).

You know what I’m talking about. Those times in anime series or maybe a live-action martial arts film where a character needs to find inner peace or other spiritual enlightenment in order to evolve physically and be able to pull off some impossible move or conquer an intimidating foe.

I honestly don’t know how I feel about this idea of mysticism as a tool for depicting personal growth in a character. It’s not the presence of the supernatural that bothers me, but how the character is always aware they’re growing stronger or overcoming some personal demon as it’s happening. It’s not terribly realistic, a person knowing they’re maturing or growing.

Anyway, I can accept the connection here because Alita was a warrior in her past life and she’s taken on that role again as Alita. Improving as a fighter and overcoming physical obstacles brings her closer to her ‘true self,’ or at least her past life. The question of whether who she is now is anything like who she was, or would want to be, hangs over this story.

I suppose I could criticize Kishiro for dragging this out. Omnibus 2 ends with round two of the tournament in progress, and he seems intent on giving every round of adversaries a backstory or unique style, each fight drawn out in multi-chapter battles. It’s well-done for what it is, and as long as Alita’s revelations are connected to it I’m fine with it. I do question if the brain-hunt is going to mean anything; it’s a quixotic goal, an objective just for the sake of being an objective and it doesn’t matter as long as the tournament is going on. That’s a more interesting story.

Not looking forward to Episode VII

Is it wrong to be pessimistic about Episode VII this early? There’s nothing known about it, other than that Han, Luke and Leia will appear, but there are details outside the movie itself that are relevant. Specifically the fact that Disney spent billions to buy this franchise, and they’re not about to take any real risks with this brand, now are they?

Oh, there will be some surprises, I’m sure. But they’ll each be carefully constructed and run through several committees, any possibility that the audience will be put off or disappointed accounted for and mitigated.

I don’t fear this new trilogy will be bad, but bland. Bad would at least be interesting. Look at the prequels; they weren’t good, but they were fascinating in their badness. George Lucas had a vision, he was making the movies because he had a story he wanted to tell, and through that the prequels were given character.

But these movies? They exist to promote a brand, to maintain and expand the pop culture footprint of the movies and expanded universe, not because someone has a story they want to tell. Sure, they might be entertaining, but above all they’re going to be safe. The various corporate executives overseeing these movies are going to be keeping a close eye, making sure nothing endangers the billions invested in acquiring Lucasfilm. “What did people enjoy about the Original Trilogy? We’ll give them more of that.”

I have similar thoughts about how the first two books of Legend of Korra have played out, but that’ll be a different post.

Maleficent

My interest in Maleficent was muted by the idea of ‘rehabilitating’ a villain by presenting their side, the idea that a bad guy is only bad because they suffered in some way and hey, if you know the real story they’re not really that bad so it’s OK that we’ll put her on a bunch of merchandise and in our commercials and introduce a Disney Infinity figure of her.

This is not a new thing. I can remember when I was a kid there was a book in the library telling the story of the Three Little Pigs from the wolf’s perspective, explaining that he wasn’t really evil, just suffering from allergies. And isn’t that so clever, that we can change an established story and reverse the hero/villain roles?

So I didn’t rush to see the movie, and frankly my life would not have been missing anything if I hadn’t seen this. It’s good, not spectacular in any way, justifying its existence by the sincerity of Jolie and Copley as the leads, the darkness of the date rape analogy of Maleficent’s backstory and the massive shift from the source material in acts 2 and 3. That is what interested me more than ‘Maleficent loses her wings in a not-subtle reference to date rape,’ though yes the feminist streak added to Maleficent’s character made her an anti-hero worth cheering for.

See, the original Sleeping Beauty (the Disney animated movie and, presumably, the original fairy tale) has a MAJOR plot hole in the form of a 16-year gap where nothing happens. Maleficent lays the curse, then scuttles off to wait for Aurora to grow up and fulfill the curse. What is she doing during this time? Well, the animated movie has a scene where Maleficent is asking her underlings why they haven’t found Aurora yet (answer: they’re still looking for a baby, 16 years later), but even if she had found her what was her plan? She couldn’t do anything to Aurora, otherwise her curse is moot.

The live-action movie hurdles this question by having her find baby Aurora pretty quick, which is a good thing because the three good fairies here are absolutely stupid and completely unqualified for child-rearing. (The Three Stooges comedy routine of the fairies could have been excised, to the advantage of the movie.) So it’s up to Maleficent to covertly raise/protect Aurora, and in the process she ends up getting too close to her, opening up about her past (sparing the specific details) and growing fond of the girl/teen.

This leads into Act 3, where Maleficent’s curse plays itself out heedless of her changed desires, and we get one subversion of the Sleeping Beauty myth after another for a climax that ranks alongside Frozen as a ‘take that’ to classic fairy tale naivete while at the same time substituting a more genuine and satisfying solution that keeps at bay the ‘cynical satire with a forced happy ending’ finale of Shrek and its ilk. This movie isn’t trying to be smarter than its fairy tale roots, it’s just trying to bring the material into the modern era and for a smarter audience.

Does it work? At times. Jolie is the lynchpin of this movie, pitch perfect casting in the same mold as Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans in those other Disney live-action movies. Without her making the character a living being I wouldn’t have bought her character arc, but that doesn’t mean the script does quite so well bringing her to her redemption. The bonding between Aurora and Maleficent is mostly one-sided, Aurora impressed by her ‘fairy godmother’ and Maleficent more or less acting nicer without seeming to be defrosting. Using the 16-year gap as an opening to take the story in a new direction was inspired, but after making that decision that screenplay starts to phone it in.

And then there’s the rest of the movie surrounding this twist. I said weeks ago the trailers left me a bit cold, all the shots of CGI-creatures and a giant wall of thorny bramble uninspired. I’m not impressed you can make these things, animators. Computers can do anything.

What the animators or director or whomever forgot when designing the fairy land side of the movie’s setting was ‘character.’ There’s creatures wandering around the enchanted moors Maleficent comes from, but they’re all pretty generic. As if someone found public domain fantasy figures and then cut-and-paste. For a fantasy setting there’s little that feels fantastic apart from Maleficent. Yes, it’s her story, but her story starts with and springs from her connection to the fairy realm next to the human realm. A little better world-building would have done wonders.